The new world of interpreting: Are some staying behind?

August 26, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Modernization is part of human nature, it’s always been around. From the cavemen who used the first tools, to the invention of writing, to the discovery of new territories, and to the technological advances of the 21st. century, humankind has always strived to be more comfortable, more competitive, and more modern. Sadly, as modernization is in our DNA, so is the desire to resist change. How many wars, social unrests, and atrocities have been committed on the name of “tradition” and to protect the status quo. Fear is a bad advisor; it never stops progress but it slows it down.  Historically people have opposed change arguing that it will bring upon us calamity and disaster. This has never happened. No doubt the primitive hunter feared agriculture as its results took longer than it took to hunt a prey. Veteran sailors feared navigation far from shore because they could fall into the void. Artisans feared the industrial revolution because there would be no more jobs.  All those fears proved to be unfounded. You see, humans are adaptable by nature. We adapt to the circumstances that surround us and make the most of it; that is how progress happens. That is how we measure it.  The interpreters of the League of Nations panicked with the arrival of simultaneous interpretation during the Nuremberg trials and they fought against it when the newly-created United Nations decided to adopt the new technology to have more efficient real time communication during sessions and negotiations.  I think we are going through a similar period right now.

Those from my generation remember the old TV sets that broadcasted in black and white for a few hours every day, the transatlantic flights on airplanes that had to stop somewhere to refuel between America and Europe. Oh, and we were witnesses and users of then state-of-the-art technology like record players, 8-track players, cassette players, walkmans, and CDs.  We watched movies at the theater, on Betamax and VHS cassettes, and we went to Blockbuster making sure we had rewinded the tape after watching it.   What about computers, calculators, contact lenses, microwave ovens, and many other things. They all came and went. They all fulfilled their purpose and we are now better off without them.

The digital era has brought tremendous changes to the way interpreters do business and work nowadays. We now fill up our work agendas, get paid, and prepare for a job at a speed and with efficiency never imagined.  I am enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, some colleagues are not.

Not long ago I was interpreting for a conference that required many languages so there were many booths. The equipment was state-of-the-art. We had consoles that rewind the presenter’s speech, and we had a TV monitor in the booth that received images from cameras in the room that we could operate with a joy stick to see the faces of those asking questions even though they were facing towards the stage and all we could see from the booth was their backs.  Before the start of the first session of the first day of the conference, I heard the two colleagues from a different booth asking the tech person to “please remove that thing from the booth.”  They argued that “it (took) too much room and (they) really didn’t need all those videogames to do a good job.” I have known these colleagues for a long time and their work is excellent. They are some of the best in their language pair. Unfortunately, after overhearing the comments above, and after going by their booth and seeing that they did not have any computers or tablets, I couldn’t help to compare them to other colleagues with the same language combination that I had recently worked with and were taking advantage of all the technology. I felt frustrated by their decision to get rid of the technology, but I also felt sad because I knew then that unless they change, pretty soon they will not be working. Others with similar skills and better technology will take their place.

For some time I have noticed how the gap is widening between those of us who are embracing technology and those wonderful interpreters who resist and fight the change. I still run into colleagues who give you dirty looks when you arrive to the booth and plug in your I-pad. Just this year I have worked with people who are bringing paper dictionaries to work.  Not long ago an interpreter complained to me that the agency was trying to send us all materials to a dropbox instead of emailing them (never mind we were talking of huge files) Another one remarked that it was “distracting” to see me “playing” with the I-pad in the booth and taking notes on the pad instead of “using paper and pencil.” I tried to explain that I was online researching a term to help her with her rendition but she didn’t give me a chance to explain.

Unfortunately these are not isolated cases, and many of these colleagues are really good.  They don’t understand that comments like: “please call me. I hate to do this by email” hurt them with the client. They do not see that the person from the agency is 20 years old and expects you to use Viber, WhatsApp, and Wikipedia.  I am concerned because we may be on the verge of losing very good professionals because of their stubbornness. And it is not just the interpreters. It is some of our professional organizations as well. I work all over, so I am a member of professional organizations all-over the world. Some of them have embraced technology quite well, but others are resisting the change. We still have professional organizations, and some agencies for that matter, which refuse to take electronic signatures, that want to see a FAXED copy of your ID, or that refuse scanned documents. Organizations that “need” to approve your comments in a professional chat-room; “need” a signature to change your address on the directory, or demand copies of your certificates and diplomas.  We have organizations led by the same people who resist change that are becoming irrelevant before our eyes and don’t see it.

My friends, I worry that good capable people may become obsolete because of their resistance to modernization. I can just imagine how good they would be if they “dared” to use technology. The great Charles F. Kittering once said: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” He was right. I would love to hear your thoughts on this very delicate but essential issue.

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§ 12 Responses to The new world of interpreting: Are some staying behind?

  • Karen says:

    Reblogged this on My train of thoughts on… and commented:
    This is an excellent blog post on dealing with change.

  • Gio Lester says:

    Great topic, Tony. Those familiar with InterpretAmerica will have a sense of déjà vu reading this. I have made a point of forcing myself to learn at least one new technology a semester – something that “frightens” me, and I follow my friends in their experiences, learning form them.

    After a certain age we can only grown in knowledge and abilities. I can’t get any taller, and I definitely to not want to increase my girth :o)

  • Vanesa Bell says:


    Sent via the HTC Vivid™, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  • I understand those that resist change. If they have done their job we
    ll, as you point out they resent having to add a new difficulty to a job that is already quite difficult.We must let people work the way that is better for them, with or without technology ,as long as the job is done well. I do not think that being a proficient user of technology makes you a good interpreter , there are many other skills that are more important.

  • In the world of print, everything needs interpretation. Interpretation is concerned with meaning. Meaning is intimately related to technology. I do not mean that in any reductionist sense. Meaning is not reducible to technology. Meaning is only mediated by our technology. Technology does not create meaning. What technology does is to transform meaning.

  • Sabine Bouladon says:

    Dear Tony,
    Interesting article, thank you.
    I must admit that until recently, I resisted new technology in the booth, I wrote my glossaries on paper and disliked colleagues who tapped away furiously at their keyboards while I was working, answering emails, finding it distracting.
    However, at the last few conferences, we have been receiving presentations on USB sticks only a few minutes before the speaker, so I have purchased a MacBook Air (which takes USB) and use it in the booth. The main advantage is that you can have a page such as Linguee up on your screen and look up a word for your colleague when he is stuck in real time, and vice versa.
    I haven’t come across the joystick yet though.
    I think we all need to adapt to some extent, we have no choice if we want to keep working. A week before a conference last year, I received an email stating this was going to be a ‘paperless’ meeting and all presentations would be handed to us on a USB stick on arrival. I still think this is not ideal for preparation purposes (I prefer to write things down) but a colleague was telling me that with an ipad, you can write words on the text with a little stylus.
    Powerpoint presentations are now the norm so we have to adapt, and in fact printing endless pages of speeches beforehand is not at all eco-friendly, so bring in the changes!

  • Luigi says:

    I have just come back to the USA after 14 years in Asia and I now find it hard to even remember seeing stacks of paper dictionaries in booths or hearing colleagues say they prefer a phone call. In those 14 years I doubt that I got more than 3 offers of work by phone.

    I would consider having docs shared through Dropbox a courtesy, and many of my clients just stick them on their websites and let us download them, which is also just fine.

    Computers in the booth? You would stick out like a sore thumb if you didn’t have one.

    None of these things is so new and I find it surprising to hear of such complaints here in the land of Apple and Google.

    Laptops, tablets and smart phone are great work tools, but I would add that we should not forget booth etiquette. Using them to share jokes and FB posts across booths (and the concomitant giggles produced) during a meeting (yes, I’ve witnessed this and fortunately it is not common) is not the best use of useful technology.

  • […] Dear Colleagues, Modernization is part of human nature, it’s always been around. From the cavemen who used the first tools, to the invention of writing, to the discovery of new territories, and to …  […]

  • Tony,

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I have had similar experiences over the years. The basic challenge is to adapt or become irrelevant. I would add one more dimension to your blog. That is technology has taken conferences out of the conference room and into cyberspace. It’s one thing to have lots of technology in the booth, but the number of cases are growing where technology replaces the booth altogether.

  • Gloria Hughes says:

    Thank you for your article. It made me think of something I read on a piece of the Berlin Wall that was left as a reminder: “He who wants the world to remain as it is, does not want it to remain at all…”

  • This is a master blog and should be distributed to every interpreter who wishes to remain relevant in the 21st. Century. I have been talking about it (and being scorned for it… oh well… people do fear change to the point of blindness). Thank you for writing so well all of my thoughts. I feel like I gave you all my notes and you were able to write them down so beautifully. Will surely share your piece as much as I can in the future.

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